Sandbox Games. Do They Have To Be Huge, Long And Throbbing?

I had an interesting ‘discussion’ today. I use the inverted commas here as it was less of a ‘discussion’ and more a situation involving someone who it very informed attempting to explain game design to an idiot.

I wasn’t the idiot. For once.

You see he started it with this statement:

“Sleeping Dogs is shit, it only took me fifteen hours to complete. Why can’t it be like Skyrim? ALL GAMES SHOULD LAST FOR A HUNDRED HOURS!”

“All games?” I replied

“Well ALL sandbox games, yeah.”

It’s probably worth noting that he had only learned the phrase ‘sandbox games’ five minutes previously, from my good self. Up until then he’d called ‘sandbox games’ GTA games. But did he have a point?

The entire concept of a sandbox game is a virtual play area that usually takes the form of an open world city that you can make your own fun inside of. But is that still true? Are sandbox games now that concept in name only? Do constraints on story-telling have an impact? And, perhaps most importantly, do we really need to spend hours in a city looking for pigeons?

These open-world games – recent examples of which include Prototype 2, Mafia II, GTA IV, Crackdown, Red Dead Redemption, The Saboteur and Planet 51 – sell well, usually off of the back of the hard work of one game in particular.

No, not Grand Theft Auto 3.

That’s right, Driver.

Driver pioneered the open-world game with it’s seminal PS1/PC title. Having a grunty muscle car and a city to bomb around in was a revelation both visually and from a game play point of view. Linear design took the back seat to choice and in turn this led to long periods of time being spent in the game world without a key focal mission or task. This led to the hugely popular GTA3, which took the exceptional series out of the top down world and into a fully realised city location. Liberty City was stunning, as was the world of Shenmue. Suddenly we were seeing a new dawn in game design, perhaps the most important innovation since Doom. Within a matter of months the terms ‘GTA clone’ was being attributed to a flurry of hastily financed games – sometimes as a marketing ploy and sometimes with derision – that hit the market to capitalise on the successes of these pioneering games.

Shenmue and GTA3 offered worlds of diversion, a myriad of side-quests and interactive environments ensured that even when you weren’t racing a forklift you could still feel immersed in a real world, a world you wanted to explore and interact with. It is here – alongside the Sim series of games – that the term ‘sandbox’ is most fairly associated as they genuinely offered that experience, but as designers got more serious about their games so did the story lines. Plot was now as important as visuals to many consumers, and a brick wall was approaching quickly on the horizon.

You see when you play a game you can usually fit it into one of these categories:

  • Overlong – feeling repetitive and padded
  • Just right – well designed, doesn’t overstay it’s welcome
  • Short – lacking polish and content

The best games sit in between ‘Just Right’ and ‘Overlong’ but the majority find themselves in the overlong category after putting in content for the sake of content. Gamers came to expect a certain amount of time from their game experience, and the guy I spoke to today clearly thinks that 100 hours is a fair number. But of course this is ridiculous.

Imagine the plotting of Heavy Rain, stretched out to a hundred hours. Could the suspense and importance be sustained? Of course not. Instead you’d be faced with a bloated, convoluted tale that would result in the gamer losing interest shortly after the urgency is lost. Also huge games require commitment. Do many gamers even have a hundred hours to commit to the side-quests and distractions these days? With Skyrim the time passes in a very casual manner, it’s easy to pass time as the world is so involving, yet lacks urgency. You are actively encouraged to just amble around. Hunt some mudcrabs. Find a cave. That kind of thing. It drip feeds you with surprises if you look for them. This isn’t the case with your average ‘GTA Clone’.

Grand Theft Auto IV marked a new dawn for the franchise, moving away from the puerile humour of the earlier games and ramping up the mature themes to create a genuinely solid story within a living and breathing city. It lost a lot of the humourous distraction events, and as a result it lost some of the ‘fun’. I never completed GTA IV to 100% completion, and it was the first GTA title since the PS1 where that was the case. I wasn’t alone, in 2009 Gamasutra put out a feature about completion rates in Xbox games, and the data collected revealed that less than 30% of gamers who started GTA IV actually finished the game.

Now at that point it was reported to have sold six million copies of the game on the Xbox platform, so essentially four million people never finished the game. Was it because the game was crap? Not at all, it was great, but it never rewarded your involvement in the way that earlier instalments seemed to. With dozens of similar games out there we now not only had choice in-game, but we also had choice of game. Saint’s Row suddenly filled the void and with it’s third instalment it really did a job of doing everything that GTA IV had left out, and as a result meant that more players ploughed through to the end. It was a shorter game, but the content was there. Had it have attempted to top the one hundred hours mark it would have become far, far too ridiculous.

Mafia II is a curious example. A free-roam game with a linear structure, it managed to tell a story, capture a time and allow for some degree of freedom without feeling obliged to give you access to everything all of the time. As a result it was a tighter experience that I loved, but many criticised for not being more like GTA. The comparison should never have been made, but more and more we see games constantly compared to Rockstar’s super-franchise. Fair enough, Mafia II is a crime based game in an open-world environment, you can steal cars and have to navigate a map to discover missions and secrets, but the similarities end with the sheer linear nature of the game. Mafia II is all about the story. It whisks you through time periods and locations to move the story along convincingly, and to great effect.

Which brings me to Sleeping Dogs.

Sleeping Dogs is of course the polished and rejigged True Crime threquel that was shelved by it’s original publishers thanks to the competitive market driven by Metacritic ratings. Now released by Square Enix and renamed Sleeping Dogs it follows the story of an undercover cop deep in cover with Triad gangs in Hong Kong. Twelve hours into the game I’m told I’ve completed seventy per cent of the game. 70% of everything. Including side quests and collectibles. In theory I have less than four hours left with the game, but I’ve loved it. The pacing is great and I am not noticing too much in the way of repetition, and the story is progressing naturally.

When I explained this to the guy in the shop today it sparked his rant. His misinformed, stupid rant.

The game wouldn’t work with five times the length.

Few games would.

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days was about five hours long, and while playing it I enjoyed it. I completed it, was surprised by the length, but it felt right.

Some stories only have so much longevity, open world or not.

Some games can plough through the one hundred hour mark, but they have to earn that time from the gamer, not simply just throwing in a hundred collectibles to generate time wasting. I have spent upwards of two hundred hours on Burnout Paradise over the years, not because of exhaustive content, but because it is a great casual multi-player title. I’ve had conversations in-game while simply parked up on a cliff top. That wasn’t by design, it was by adoption.

Skyrim is similar. You don’t get one hundred hours of game play by following the main story quest, you get it from wanting to do more.

Some games do this well, others don’t need to but try anyway and as a result end up worse for it.

I’d rather have a perfectly paced five hour game in a sand box world than a bloated one hundred hour title. The concept of a sandbox should bring with it long term game play, but like the sandbox you make your own fun. Crackdown offered players the ‘Keys to the City’ to extend the life of the already excellent title, but you can give as many keys as you want to folks, it doesn’t guarantee anything. I love long games, when I find the time to enjoy them, but there’s nothing wrong with a shorter title with clear focus.

Essentially I will close the article with the same statement I closed the conversation with earlier:

If you take a trip to the cinema and pay a tenner to see a three hour effects movie, then follow it up the following week with a ninety minute effects movie do you feel short-changed? Of course not. We treat films differently to our games, and yet they offer a similar concept ‘x-hours worth of entertainment’. There are four hour films that should have been shorter and films that we wished were longer. But never have we avoided a film based on a short run time. So why attribute the same to a game? Price? Perhaps, but a five hour game told well can be a far better experience than a creaky grind-fest of a title that offers ten times the time investment but no more actual story content. Sure it’s great to get more for your money, but anyone who ever sat through Return of the King Extended Edition’s endings will attest that often you can have too much of a good thing.


One thought on “Sandbox Games. Do They Have To Be Huge, Long And Throbbing?

  1. First note, I think you have the concept spot on with ‘most’ casual gamers. As a burgeoning indie game developer, most of my personal research resonates with your article.


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